Old man Jimmie Johnson will get back on the grind at the Daytona 500
Jimmie Johnson is a man of many nicknames.
We used to call him “Mr. Seven-Time,” a homage to his Cup season titles. Cool! His rapper buddy Snoop Dogg calls him “Double J.” Groovy! His Hendrick Motorsports teammates have another cute nickname for him:
“It’s all in fun,” Johnson said, chatting outside his motor coach at Daytona International Speedway. “There is no doubt about an age gap. ... I knew at some point it would be my turn, but now I’m getting it in spades with three of them.”
Old Man Johnson may need five kiddie seats this weekend at Daytona. There’s Genevieve Marie and Lydia Norriss, his adorable baby girls. And there’s Chase, William and Alex, his adorable teammates.
The extreme shift from veterans to aspiring young drivers in NASCAR is best exemplified by the employees of Rick Hendrick, the “Mr. H” who has signed Chase Elliott (age 22), Alex Bowman (24) and William Byron (20) to saddle up with Johnson (42) for the 2018 Monster Energy Cup season.
“I think my kids give me that shock value on my age,” Johnson said. “I’m in a good spot with my age and where I am with my career and all of that. There hasn’t been an eye-opening thing of, ‘Wow, I’m old.’ I know that already. This is my 17th year. It’s been a long 16 seasons. With all the success, it’s still a grind.”
But a good grind.
Johnson’s seven Cup championships tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all time. Mr. Seven-Time would love to become Mr. Eight-Time, but the clock is ticking.
Although he won three races and qualified for the playoffs, Johnson never really found true speed the second half of last year. It was one of his most frustrating seasons.
“Usually the harder I work, eventually we find a conclusion, and last year we couldn’t find a conclusion,” he said. “That’s where the frustration really set in. This year there are a lot of new elements that will change the mousetrap, if you will. We’ve got a ton of optimism and really looking forward to get it going.”
Positive spin. Here’s the flip side:
“Realistically, it was the worst season of his career,” said Larry McReynolds, Fox Sports racing analyst. “From the time he won Dover in the spring to Homestead, he only had one top-five finish. That’s one top-five in the last 23 races. Can they get that ship righted?”
So far, it looks shaky. Johnson will start in a backup car for Sunday’s Daytona 500 after a blown tire caused him to wreck in Thursday’s qualifying races. Johnson also crashed and wasn’t able to finish in last Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash.
But Johnson’s individual competitive goals now morph into a more encompassing role as mentor for the Hendrick pack. They’ve found good speed already, with Bowman grabbing the pole for Sunday’s Great American Race and Elliott winning one of the qualifying duels.
“They have all come to me,” Johnson said. “Our touch points are just kind of starting up now. I found myself at the head of the debrief, leading the debrief and recognizing the tone that I set and how I led the meeting. Those guys are going to follow suit. To be honest with you, most of the conversations have been more about off-the-track related things and balancing life: What to get, what to buy — all the things it takes to live on the road week in and week out.”
Byron never lived in a motor coach. The Cup grind is harder than the other two major NASCAR series: a different beast with different rules. Byron — who looks like he never used a razor — can learn a lot from a veteran with a touch-of-gray beard.
“I’ve never seen anyone evolve as much as he does,” Byron said. “He’s so in tune with himself and improves. He doesn’t really come across as a veteran. He comes across as someone willing to learn all the time. It’s special to see someone like that, and I feel there’s no generational gap there.”
New rules: Everybody buckle up, and listen to what Grandpa says.
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